The Life of Brian

Written by Richard Murison

Havergal Brian was one of the most prolific English composers of the 20th Century. Many of you will be thinking “Havergal Brian”? Very few have actually heard of him, but that number is growing all the time. It was his burden – one carried by many highly-regarded composers – that his reputation has only really started to germinate since his death.

William “Havergal” Brian was born in 1876 – he was a mere 16 years younger than Mahler – and was a largely self-taught composer. Throughout his long life – he died in 1972, just shy of his 97th birthday – he churned out a colossal body of very substantial works, including no less than 32 full symphonies. His admirers included Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Henry Wood (who programmed his works at a number of Prom concerts) and Richard Strauss. Almost none of his music was ever published during his lifetime, and, as a consequence, a substantial body of his earlier output is irretrievably lost. He adopted the name “Havergal” as a tribute to a family of hymn-writers, of whom the most notable was Frances Ridley Havergal.

In his earlier years, he enjoyed the financial support of a wealthy patron, who allowed him to focus on composition, and provided for his growing family. But his patron died at the beginning of WWI, and with him his generous stipend. Brian enlisted with an Artillery company but was discharged due to having “flat feet,” and he left his family to work in London as an occasional journalist and music critic. For the most part, he lived a penurious existence, and by WWII he was a pensioner.

In 1958, at the age of 82, he moved to a seafront council flat in Shoreham-on-Sea, on England’s south coast, where, instead of fading into oblivion, he embarked upon an incredible 10-year burst of truly extraordinary creative output. In that period he wrote no less than 20 symphonies and two concertos, as well as a number of other substantial orchestral works. This remarkable stream of composition continued in the face of almost total disinterest on the part of the music establishment. Very few of his compositions were performed during his lifetime, and no commercial recordings were ever made.

There were three major obstacles to performing – let along recording – Brian’s music. The first was his reputation. At a time when Britain was still struggling to emerge from being a class-driven society, most of the music establishment was just that – the establishment. And establishments tend to prefer people who adhere to establishment norms and don’t rock the boat. Being a self-taught, working-class, amateur with ambitions above his station would have placed him somewhere beneath contempt. So Havergal Brian’s work was not generally supported by the musical establishment of his day.

The second was the fact that almost none of his music had been published, so there were no printed scores to work from. Any performances that did take place had to be played from hand-annotated copies, many of which contained transcription errors and other major obstacles, such as page breaks at seriously inconvenient places. These issues inevitably meant a need for additional rehearsal times, something which was inconsistent with the demands of the major orchestras and conductors.

Finally, it must be noted that Brian’s works invariably call for quite substantial orchestral resources, and are quite challenging to play, which means that smaller local orchestras are often poorly equipped to take on the challenge. The toughest of all is Brian’s first symphony “The Gothic”, which, in addition to an immense orchestra, calls for four choirs, a children’s choir, four vocal soloists, and additional accoutrements such as an organ and a “thunder machine”. It goes on for an hour and 40 minutes, and is officially recognized as the longest symphony ever written. Remarkably, it was performed in 1966 at the Royal Albert Hall, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult, for live broadcast by the BBC, with Brian in attendance. A famous photograph shows Sir Adrian addressing the assembled forces using a megaphone! A recording of that performance does exist, and is now available on CD from the Testament label, but is not highly regarded.

Despite the persistent neglect of his work, Havergal Brian did still have the occasional champion, and the most important of these turned out to be Dr. Robert Simpson, a BBC producer, and himself a symphonic composer with a solid reputation (Simpson and Brian appear in the photograph at the top of this column, taken in 1972). It was Simpson who was responsible for making the 1966 broadcast of “The Gothic” happen, and he was determined to go one step further by producing the first ever commercial recordings of some of Havergal Brian’s works.

This is where the story of Havergal Brian crosses my own path. Simpson knew he would need a substantial orchestra of professional quality, but with the capacity to devote far more rehearsal and preparatory time to the project than would normally be available. He mentioned his dilemma to Sir Michael Tippett, who recommended that he approach the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, which Tippett had regularly conducted. The orchestra was open to recording projects, and moreover had a strong preference for modern works where its technical shortcomings might not be so obvious. They eagerly came on board.

One of the pieces scheduled to be performed was Psalm 23, an early piece by Brian (ca. ~1905), which he had shown to Sir Edward Elgar who pronounced himself impressed by it. Unfortunately, over the years, it had got lost. Except, that is, for the vocal score. So in 1944, he set about reconstructing it, and because of the Elgar connection, Simpson wanted to include it in his set of commercial recordings. That meant he would need a choir, and so my school choir was co-opted into the project. This was natural because we were, at that time, one of the county’s top choirs and worked routinely with the LSSO.

Since Simpson was a BBC producer, he also set about making a TV documentary about the project. It was called “The Unknown Warrior”, and was aired in 1972. Here it is in its entirety for you to watch. I’m in there somewhere, singing bass in the choir, although you can’t see me. But there is a very nice close-up of the young soprano who became my wife of 40 (and counting) years!


The recordings eventually came out, comprising symphonies 10, 21, and 22, Psalm 23, and English Suite No. 5. Responsibility for conducting the performances were distributed among three conductors, Eric Pinkett, James Loughran, and Laszlo Heltay. For symphony 10, a young James Loughran (who had just succeeded the legendary John Barbirolli at the Hallé), was making his own “first-ever gramophone recording.” Due to the machinations of conductor Laszlo Heltay, the recording schedule for Psalm 23 was pushed out to a date when our choir would be unavailable due to school exams, and his own Brighton Festival Choir was substituted.

Today, you can buy a CD transcription of the original LP’s on-line from Heritage Records. You won’t be mistaking the LSSO for the London Symphony Orchestra, but at the same time the LSO wasn’t clamoring to participate in making these historic recordings. You won’t be buying this CD to listen to Heltay’s contribution either, but the performances conducted by Loughran and Pinkett are notably more accomplished.

Robert Simpson’s tireless promotion of Havergal Brian ultimately bore fruit. Today, much of Brian’s work is seeing widespread concert programming, and almost all of it can be found in commercially-available recordings, albeit mostly from specialist labels. There is an active Havergal Brian Society, with a comprehensive and informative web site (which looks like it was designed in 1992). It is also interesting that in 2011 “The Gothic” was performed at a Prom concert at the Royal Albert Hall, with almost a third of the hall taken up by the performers. Tickets sold out on the day they went on sale, which is quite remarkable for an early-season Proms concert. The conductor was Martyn Brabbins, who has conducted numerous Brian works on the Dutton label, and also serves as President of the Havergal Brian Society. The performance is available on CD, on the Hyperion label. Here is an amateur video of the closing moments of the concert (5 minutes of symphony, 10 minutes of ovation):


So that’s the Havergal Brian story. The unknown warrior who spent a lifetime battling against disinterest and neglect. A man who wrote more than 20 symphonies while in his eighties and nineties. But is it a tale of redemption – with the recognition denied in his lifetime triumphantly bestowed after his death?

Well, no. At least I don’t think so. I’ve been listening to a lot of Havergal Brian lately, and Gustav Mahler he ain’t. While there’s no doubt that he was a composer of genuine talent, and vision, and much of what he wrote is eminently listenable, his overarching problem is that his music is ultimately too fragmentary. Individual ideas spring up and capture the attention and imagination…but then he goes nowhere with them. And while one can often discern the elements of a narrative arc, it is as though whole chapters are missing. The lack of satisfaction leaves me, as a listener, unsettled and feeling short-changed. Listening to Psalm 23, which I well remember singing back in 1972, I hear what sounds like a medley of musical fragments that have been inexpertly assembled. Sure, each of the fragments is impressive, and some are undoubtedly things of great beauty, but the whole fails to amount to more than the sum of its parts.

Brian’s larger-scale works also tend to suffer from never seeming to generate a suitable climax. This becomes more notably egregious the larger the scale of the work. After all, if you are going to assemble the gargantuan forces required to perform “The Gothic”, you would think that at some point you are going to want to make use of them all. But no. The vast majority of critical reviews of the 2011 Prom concert were not complimentary. And yet the vast majority of audience reaction was laudatory…and many of the critical professional reviews felt obliged to admit that the overall effect of the performance was in some strange way rather satisfying.

A number of pro-Brian analysts choose to advance the argument that the very aspects of his music which give rise to the most criticism are in fact conscious and deliberately-conceived choices, honed by a deep-seated reaction to the first World War, and nourished by his isolation from the various progressive schools of music which dominated high-brow music circles (and not necessarily for the better) for most of the 20th Century. Who is to say which view is correct?

As I type, I am listening to Symphony 21 from the “First Commercial Recordings” CD, and I am definitely enjoying it. Each individual moment is nicely constructed, expertly orchestrated, and pleasantly melodious. But whereas I could probably play through the entire hour of Part II of Mahler’s 8th symphony in my head and not miss a beat, it strikes me that I can’t imagine how I’d ever get to that point with Havergal Brian’s 21st. I think that’s the bottom line.

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